Laos, once a secondary battlefield in the Vietnam conflict, is now a world-class producer and exporter of opium. Washington faces an increasingly difficult trade-off - trying to retrieve the remains of servicemen lost in Laos, while cracking down on the booming official drug trade.
Critics within and outside the Reagan administration are saying drugs have to take a higher priority, given clear evidence of Laotian government sponsorship. United States policy amounts to ``groveling for bones'' while ``kids are dying'' from Laotian heroin, says one sharply critical congressional aide.
On the other side, some officials argue that publicly sanctioning Laos will be only a symbolic act, since the US has little direct leverage with that country. Such a move, they say, would end the nascent bilateral dialogue on drugs and stop all cooperation in the search for troops missing in action (MIAs).
But a ``giant debate'' has been under way in the administration, officials say, and is now spilling into Congress.
US antinarcotics specialists conclude that the communist regime in Laos is the only government in the world that promotes the production of illicit drugs as state policy. The US intelligence community is ``unanimous'' on this, a well-informed official says.
The Vietnam war, however, still looms large in how Washington deals with Laos. President Reagan this month granted the country a two-month ``vital national interest'' waiver from sanctions required by the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act because of promised Laotian cooperation on the prisoners of war-MIA issue. He granted a similar waiver in 1987. There are thought to be over 500 Americans missing in action in Laos.
Accounting for these servicemen remains an emotional political issue. Pressure is great from families and veterans' groups to secure the remains of the dead and ensure that there are no living POWs in Southeast Asia. Many inside the administration, including the President, view this as a high priority.
Yet, people are questioning.
``It's time to say what's more important,'' said a longtime MIA activist, Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California, in a congressional hearing this week. It would be a ``travesty'' if recovery of remains is driving US policy, he said, while drugs from Laos are ``putting our children in coffins.''
Representative Dornan acknowledged the emotion still involved, but said every official he has talked to believes there are no more living POWs. If MIA families could believe this, Dornan argues, they would agree to leave remains where they are and move to protect the living.
Rep. Lawrence Smith (D) of Florida, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee Task Force on International Narcotics Control, agrees with Mr. Dornan that the administration's waiver for Laos is on ``tenuous grounds,'' given the clear evidence that ``reliance on drug money has reached the upper reaches of the Laotian Communist Party'' and given Laos's ``zero cooperation'' on drug control.
During testimony, Ann Wrobleski, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, said that Dornan's points reflected the debate within the administration. She stressed that the administration would review Laos's performance on the MIA issue and narcotics again by May 1. If there is no progress in either area, officials say, a new waiver will not be granted.
In the last several years, the US and Laos have begun to cooperate in the search for remains of US servicemen. Two joint excavations have been held and two more are promised for this early year. The Laotian government has also provided information on three MIA cases and has initiated several excavations and returned the remains found, US officials say.
Officials concede, however, that this cooperation is not complete, and others question its relative value, given the rising narcotics trade. Last year a key office in the US intelligence community concluded that the only way to explain the preponderance of evidence on Laotian drug production, processing, and trafficking was that this was ``state policy,'' informed sources say.
In recent weeks a second federal agency has come to the same conclusion, they say. And the Drug Enforcement Administration is also said to agree.
Assistant Secretary Wrobleski testified this week that ``an immense problem is brewing in Laos,'' both in the booming domestic drug production and in Laotian support for massive production in neighboring Burma by the insurgent Burmese Communist Party and others. Official and congressional sources add there is increasing evidence of a Vietnamese role in transshipping the drugs through Da Nang, Vietnam.
Official US estimates rank Laos fourth in world opium production, behind Burma, Afghanistan, and Iran. But the estimated 1988 production of 190 to 300 metric tons is up six- to tenfold over the estimated 30 metric tons in 1984. Communist-controlled areas in Burma are also expected to produce 900 to 1,200 metric tons this year.
Heroin from Laos flows into the US via Chinese gangs, specialists say. Estimated production for 1988 now totals several times the US demand.
An embryonic US-Laotian dialogue has begun on the control of these illicit drugs, and the Laotian government has begun to show sensitivity to growing international criticism by beginning talks with the United Nations on crop-control programs, officials say.
Those who oppose decertification of Laos under the drug control act say it would end any US-Laotian dialogue on drugs. While decertification would prohibit any future US aid and require the US to oppose any loans by international banks to Laos, they say the real impact would be largely symbolic since the US has no bilateral leverage, such as an aid program there.
The justification of the President's waiver notes, however, that Laos has not accepted US offers of antidrug assistance nor undertaken any control initiatives on its own. Wrobleski testified that bilateral cooperation on narcotics is probably not in sight for the ``short term.
Dornan has said he believes the international embarrassment of decertifying Laos would push that regime to curtail drug trafficking and would not hurt long-term cooperation on MIAs, because Laos wants a relationship with the US.
A number of people within the administration and Congress are inclined to grant an additional waiver May 1 if Laos proves its willingness to cooperate on MIAs.
But the debate is far from decided. Congressional aides say there will be growing pressure to decertify Laos.
Even a high-level supporter of continued dialogue with Laos admits that unless Laos makes clear progress on the MIA issue and shows some movement on drug control, his point of view may well be overruled.